I. Is the Catholic Faith Old or New?
A. Let me begin with a question: Is the Catholic faith old or new? Lots of people will say it’s old, and, of course, it is 2,000 years old. But that’s not what most people mean when they say the Church is old. What they really mean is that the Church is out of touch with people’s lives, and they point to declining church attendance as evidence that many people no longer find the Church relevant.
B. Naturally, I’d like to ignore both the claim and the evidence, but I can’t overlook the decline in Mass attendance here in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and elsewhere. People have many reasons for staying away from Mass on Sunday but the fact remains, many no longer believe their faith is important for daily life. Sadly, this includes young people, who feel the faith is a thing of the past.
C. We need to face this challenge honestly and constructively. Do those of us who practice the faith portray the Church as an antiquated institution? … an institution that criticizes the culture, worries about its own survival, and ignores the needs and aspirations of people today? Without intending it, do we give people reasons to walk away?
II. The Newness of the Gospel
A. The Scripture readings for this Sunday address this challenge. They speak not about the oldness of our faith but its newness; not about the Church as reactionary but as missionary; not about the disciples as dour critics but as men and women of joy.
B. Consider today’s Gospel in which the disciples encounter the Risen Lord. Even after 2,000 years, what is newer than the Resurrection? Jesus is more than a resuscitated corpse. In Jesus, our flesh, our humanity is forever alive with the indestructible life and glory of his heavenly Father. The Gospel shows us Jesus, brimming with new life and ready to ascend to his Father. And in this permanently “new” moment in human history, Jesus gives his Apostles and us a new commandment: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” The disciples had only to look at Jesus – glorious to behold but with the marks of the nails still on his hands and feet and side— to know what it really means to love one another as Jesus has loved us.
C. The same is true for us: once we encounter Jesus and fall in love with him, we will look at ourselves and the people around us in a new way. We will not see them as enemies or competitors or as annoyances or non-persons. Instead, sharing in the new life of the Risen Lord, we will love them, just as the Lord has loved us and gave his life for us. In a society lacking in civility, what a difference this could make, for as Jesus said: “This is how all will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Or, as a famous theologian once wrote, “Radiant love lived by Christians is the proof of all [the] teaching, dogmas, and moral precepts of the Church of Christ.”
III. Civilization of Love
A. Now, living this new commandment of love is more than personal kindness. Instead, when the Lord’s disciples unite in living this new commandment of love, our lives and the lives around us change; a new and better situation is created. That’s what we saw in the second reading from Revelation, where it says: “Then, I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth… …Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race….” When we love others as Jesus loved us, God dwells among us. Then the old news of greed, selfishness, and indifference gives way to love. Only God’s love is forever new and the source of our joy. “Behold,” God says to us today, “I make all things new.”
B. Jesus established the Church as a community of disciples who follow his new commandment of love and who share in his new and risen life through the Sacraments. He did this so we could show the world what the new life of the Risen Lord looks like. In the words of St. John Paul II, we are called to create “a civilization of love” – a culture of respect for life, generosity to one another, compassion to those in need… …a foretaste of heaven here on earth meant to influence the culture all about us.
IV. Islands of Compassion in a Sea of Indifference
A. That’s what the disciples are doing in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles: they are going all over the place proclaiming the Name of Jesus, proclaiming the new life of the Resurrection and the new commandment of love. They are not consumed with reacting against the pagan culture all around them but instead are forging ahead, creating from within the old culture, a new culture: a culture of love, respect, mercy, and compassion. – Or, in the word of Pope Francis: “Islands of compassion amid a sea of indifference.” (2X) That’s what every Catholic home should be. That’s what every parish should be. That’s what the Catholic community here at Towson should be.
B. Becoming “an island of compassion” isn’t easy. As the disciples traveled about proclaiming the Name of Jesus, Paul and Barnabas urged them not to give up on the faith saying: “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” In other words, if we want to be compassionate in an unforgiving world, to be men and women of faith in an increasingly secular world, we’re bound to meet with criticism and even outright opposition. But our job is to keep on tearing down barriers … to open the door of faith to any and all who are willing to walk through it to find the life and love of Jesus.
V. Conclusion: A Practical Suggestion
A. So when it’s said that we’re so old we smell like mothballs, let’s not react defensively but instead follow the lead of Pope Francis: who urges us to practice what are called “the corporal and spiritual works of mercy”. When we reach out to others – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, consoling the sorrowful, helping those in doubt, quelling anger – when we do all these things and more, loving as the Lord has loved us, then what the Church believes and teaches doesn’t seem old after all. No, what the Church believes and teaches will be seen as key to living even now the new life of the Resurrection, to fulfilling the new commandment of love, … and to creating a new way of life and transforming a culture that has grown old, angry, and weary of itself.
B. May God bless us and keep us always in the love!